Veterans History Project: Charles Byrd - - Jackson, MS

Veterans History Project: Charles Byrd

By Jennifer Martin - email

As a teenager, Charles Byrd got a job delivering sandwiches in New Orleans to support himself. Miles away from his family in Hattiesburg, he decided to join the military. 

"I tried to at 16. They caught me. I got in at 17. I was looking for a home. They had a depression. And I didn't have a good education. I was looking for a home, a place to work and make a living.

When I joined the Navy, I was an apprentice seaman. I was in company 4176 at San Diego, CA.  I chose the USS California. I got the California. And six months later, the Japanese came on and sunk it."

The California was moored at Ford Island, at the heart of Pearl Harbor.

"The boatswain-mate blew a whistle and he said "air raid, air raid, and no shit." That's just what he said on the speaker. And I never heard that before. Just as quick as he said that, a bomb came through and went through the deck where I was standing, on the main deck, and exploded on the third deck. It knocked me down. Somebody helped me get up and I went to my battle station.

The Japs hit the port side with a torpedo. Oil and water went in the ventilation system and the lights dimmed in the magazine. And the water came in. It was about this deep.  So I jumped over the side. Came up by a life raft. A fellow on there said, 'you can't get on here. Swim'."

He swam to Fort Island, about 150 yards away.

"For days after that, I stood watches there at night. And there would be bodies floating. We went over to the USS West Virginia. Got up on it. And we were getting ammunition. And we were passing it by hand. They had a whole row of men and I was in that row. And they were saying 'praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.' The Navy took a beating that day.

We left there and went to Guam. And went to Pelilu for the invasion of Pelilu and then Okinawa.  We were following the mine sweepers. And they got cable cutters. And they'd cut them cables and that mine would float and they got horns on them.  They'd come up mighty close to our ship. Right there at Okinawa, I extended my enlistment there."

He didn't know it, but the end of the war was just days away.

"Went on deck. They had dust that deep over there. And it was gray dust. And we didn't know what it was."

It was fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ship moved into Tokyo Bay.

"The Missouri came in. General McArthur sitting at a table. And the Japs were lined up. Two rows of them lined up and facing him. And they were in uniform. And I was (watching) with a pair of binoculars and I watched it for a few minutes. It was the armistice. It was over."

He got his instructions to return to the states the next day. Two weeks after he returned to Hattiesburg, he married his sweetheart Mary Alice Bilbo, niece of former governor Theodore Bilbo. They had five children.

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